The top U.S. diplomat jetted to South Korea on Wednesday for talks as America’s Asian allies try to parse the implications of the unprecedented summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which ended with a renewed commitment for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula but also a pledge by Trump to end longstanding war games that unsettle Pyongyang.
Much of Asia was still trying to process the whirlwind events of the day before.
There was, at times, a surreal quality to the carefully staged, five-hour meeting of two men who’d been threatening each other with nuclear war and insulting each other’s mental and physical attributes just months before. Trump repeatedly praised Kim’s negotiating skills and their new relationship and expressed hope for “a bright new future” for Kim’s impoverished nation.
Wednesday saw worries, however, especially in U.S. allies Tokyo and Seoul, which both have huge U.S. military presences, about Trump agreeing to halt the U.S. military exercises with South Korea, which the North has long claimed were invasion preparations. That concession to Kim appeared to catch the Pentagon and officials in Seoul off guard.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Singapore on Wednesday on his way to Seoul, where he planned to meet privately in the evening with Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
Pompeo will meet President Moon Jae-in on Thursday morning to discuss the summit. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is also heading to Seoul and is due to meet with Pompeo and his South Korean counterpart. Pompeo, the former CIA director, plans to fly to Beijing to update the Chinese government on the talks.
On the issue the world has been most fixated on — North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal meant to target the entire U.S. mainland — Trump and Kim signed a joint statement that contained a repeat of past vows to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. The details of how and when the North would denuclearize appear yet to be determined, as are the nature of the unspecified “protections” Trump is pledging to Kim and his government.
Despite the confusion and disappointment among some, the summit managed to, for a time at least, reset a relationship that has long been characterized by bloodshed and threats. It was unthinkable as the two leaders traded insults and nuclear threats. In agreeing to the summit, Trump risked granting Kim his long-sought recognition on the world stage in hopes of ending the North’s nuclear program.
North Korea is believed to possess more than 50 nuclear warheads, with its atomic program spread across more than 100 sites constructed over decades to evade international inspections. Trump insisted that strong verification of denuclearization would be included in a final agreement, saying it was a detail his team would begin sorting out with the North Koreans next week.
Moon has championed engagement with the North, and the agreement’s language on North Korea’s nuclear program was similar to what the leaders of North and South Korea came up with at their own summit in April. Trump and Kim referred back to the so-called Panmunjom Declaration, which contained a weak commitment to denuclearization but no specifics on how to achieve it.
As Trump acknowledged that denuclearization would not be accomplished overnight, the North suggested Wednesday that Trump had moved away from his demand for complete denuclearization before U.S. sanctions on the long-isolated country are removed.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said the two leaders “shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” KCNA also reported that Trump had expressed his intention to lift sanctions “over a period of good-will dialogue” between the two countries.
The White House did not immediately respond to the North Korean characterization of the deal.
The Singapore agreement does not detail plans for North Korea to demolish a missile engine testing site, a concession Trump said he’d won, or Trump’s promise to end military exercises in the South while negotiations between the U.S. and the North continue. Trump cast that decision as a cost-saving measure, but also called the exercises “inappropriate” while talks continue. North Korea has long objected to the drills as a security threat.
While progress on the nuclear question was murky, the leaders spent the public portions of their five hours together expressing optimism and making a show of their new relationship. Trump declared he and Kim had developed “a very special bond,” and seemed to delight in giving Kim a glimpse of the presidential limousine. Kim, for his part, said the leaders had “decided to leave the past behind” and promised, “The world will see a major change.”
The U.S. has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s and has used them in a variety of drills. The next scheduled major exercise, involving tens of thousands of troops, normally is held in August.
The Pentagon said Tuesday it was consulting with the White House and others, but was silent on whether the August exercise would proceed. Mattis’ chief spokeswoman, Dana W. White, told reporters he was “in full alignment” with Trump.
Lawmakers, too, were looking for details. Republicans emerged from a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence wanting more information on which exercises were on hold. Colorado Sen. Corey Gardner said Pence told them that small-scale exercises would continue, but “war games will not.” Pence’s spokeswoman later denied that comment.
In Japan, the prospect of canceled U.S.-South Korean drills was met with concern.
“The U.S.-South Korea joint exercises and U.S. forces in South Korea play significant roles for the security in East Asia,” Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters Wednesday. He said he planned to continue sharing the view with Washington and Seoul.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan wants to get further explanations from the U.S. and South Korea on the issue. He declined to comment further.
South Koreans reacted to the summit’s outcome with cautious hope and concern.
The liberal Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said Trump and Kim have started a “march of peace” to end nearly seven decades of hostility and pave the way for permanent peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
The conservative Chosun Ilbo, the country’s biggest paper, was decidedly more critical, denouncing Trump for offering the end military drills while failing to convince the North to commit to verifiably giving up its nukes for good. It called the summit “dumbfounding and nonsensical,” and said it will allow North Korea to permanently maintain its nuclear weapons program.
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang, North Korea; Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; and Josh Lederman in Singapore; contributed to this report.